Northwestern lost some key players in last year's senior class, two of whom, Ibraheim Campbell and Trevor Siemian, were drafted this past spring. Players like Chi Chi Ariguzo, Kyle Prater and Chance Carter will be missed as well. But as the cycle of college sports works, the departure of veterans makes way for the rise of new luminaries. Who will emerge as big time players in 2015? Here's our best guess:
(Note: Both redshirt freshmen and true freshmen will be discussed in separate articles)
No. 1: Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE
Okay so this could come as a surprise pick since the names on the defensive end depth chart are identical to 2014. Nevertheless, I predict this is the year Odenigbo surfaces as a legitimate NFL prospect. Why? People often forget the four star recruit was a bit of a project player when he first arrived at Northwestern. He was an undersized but freakishly athletic defensive end, and many wondered whether he would be better suited as a linebacker. Despite sporadic playing time and questions of mental mistakes and an inability to stop the run, Odenigbo has shown flashes of elite pass-rushing ability over the past two seasons. Today, that freak athlete is 35 pounds heavier than he was coming in (he weighed 254 pounds as of a couple days ago) and three football seasons smarter.
Defensive end is still the deepest position on this roster but we can expect to see more of the larger and more experienced Odenigbo, especially if Mike Hankwitz employs the four-defensive end set we saw a lot of with Tyler Scott and company in 2013. Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Max Chapman are all big enough to move inside in passing situations, giving Odenigbo and Xavier Washington more opportunities to come off the edge. With increased size and an increased role, I would not be surprised to see the Ohio native double his career sack total (8.5) come bowl season.
No. 2: Miles Shuler, WR
This pick could also raise eyebrows as Shuler is a fifth-year senior in a deep -- albeit mediocre -- receiving corps. However, the departure of Tony Jones coupled with the insertion of a new starting quarterback could be the recipe for a breakout season. There's a vacancy at the speedy receiver role now that Jones is gone, and with Mike McHugh's questionable health, it looks like Shuler could fill that role. Anyone with his speed and quickness can be a nightmare for defenses out in space, and rumor has it he's been taking reps as an outside receiver. I'm not saying Miles Shuler is the next Tavon Austin, but a purely physical comparison suggests some similarity. Perhaps he can emerge as Northwestern's Tavon Austin, for whatever that's worth.
No. 3: Keith Watkins II, DB
Who? Keith Watkins, he's the guy who blocked the punt against Western Illinois last season and almost ran it back for a touchdown before getting shoestring tackled by a rogue blade of grass. The first half of that play serves as an accurate depiction of what Watkins does: he gets his hands on the football. The Cincinnati native struggled with injuries last year but he's back now, and we have no reason to believe he won't see significant playing time as a fifth defensive back. Opposing quarterbacks will likely throw the ball Watkins' way in order to avoid Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris, so don't be surprised if the dark horse comes away with a few interceptions this year. Who knows, maybe number three will redeem himself on that patch of turf that took away his touchdown last fall.
No. 4: Godwin Igwebuike, S
We're going to stick with the secondary for what is probably the safest breakout prediction. The sophomore already had his coming out party last season when he picked off three passes against Wisconsin. However (we think) this will be the first season Igwebuike is penciled in as a true starter, as last year he filled in for an injured Ibraheim Campbell. The fourth round draft pick left some large shoes to fill, but we expect the Traveon Henry-Godwin Igwebuike safety tandem to be just as reliable as the Henry-Campbell tandem of the past two seasons. Igwebuike and Campbell have similar skill sets: both were star running backs in high school; both enjoy coming downhill in run support; and both have a knack for making big plays. Assuming he stays healthy, Igwebuike will prove to be a quality Big Ten safety.
No. 5: Greg Kuhar, DT
The list would not be complete without any interior linemen, and, because the offensive line is one giant question mark right now, it had to be Greg Kuhar. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound behemoth has the potential to be one of the best defensive tackles to wear a Northwestern uniform in years. He and the aforementioned Odenigbo, both highly touted recruits from Ohio, generated a lot of buzz when they signed back in 2012. The noise has since died down, but I predict both their names will come up in conversations again this year. Kuhar has the size, strength and instincts to be a premiere hole-plugging tackle. A healthier and more experienced defensive line surrounding the junior will prove to be a big difference-maker in his production.